Conversations With Great Thinkers

10. Modern Times

by L. James Hammond
L. James Hammond 2017
back to home page

1. After a Long Sleep  A century or two ago, many educated people in the Western world knew Greek and Latin, as well as some modern languages. They studied ancient literature and modern literature, the humanities and the sciences.

Some people thought that there was an excess of learning, that creativity was being stifled by learning. Lichtenberg was one who took that view; writing in 1775, Lichtenberg argued that the culture of his day needed, “the invigorating hibernation of a new barbarism.” Nietzsche also thought that creativity was being stifled by learning; in 1878, Nietzsche spoke of an “oppressive cultural burden” and argued that there wouldn’t be a second Renaissance until this burden was removed.1

Since Lichtenberg and Nietzsche made these remarks, the age of vast learning has given way to an age of moderate learning, and the age of moderate learning has given way to an age of almost no learning at all. Since the contemporary world pays little attention to literature, there is reason to fear that the West is losing contact with its literary heritage. But there is also reason for hope: modern culture has done what Lichtenberg and Nietzsche prescribed, it has freed itself from excessive learning. After a long sleep, we will wake up refreshed and invigorated. We can rediscover the classics as if for the first time, just as the Renaissance humanists rediscovered the Greek and Roman classics. We’re poised for a second Renaissance.

2. Angry Isolation  What’s remarkable about the golden age of Greek culture is that its best writers and artists were in harmony with the culture of their time; they were carried to greatness by the culture of their time. When one looks at the age of Pericles, one doesn’t notice outstanding individuals, one notices the high level of culture in general.

What’s remarkable about nineteenth-century culture is its outstanding individuals. The great writers of the nineteenth century weren’t in harmony with the culture of their time, they angrily rejected the culture of their time. They insisted that to attain greatness in the modern world, one must isolate oneself.

What’s remarkable about contemporary culture is that it combines a dearth of outstanding individuals with a low level of culture in general; contemporary culture has neither the virtues of Greek culture nor the virtues of nineteenth-century culture. The only hope for culture in our time is that a few individuals will be able to isolate themselves from contemporary culture, work in solitude, and draw strength from contact with earlier cultures. The best model for us to emulate is the individuals of the nineteenth century, not the high level of culture in the Periclean age. There’s no hope for an improvement in the general level of culture; the general level of culture is far lower now than it was during the nineteenth century, and it’s likely to decline still further.

3. Modern Art  Every artist works within a religion, a worldview, a philosophy. In the late nineteenth century, the Western worldview was shaken by the decline of traditional religion and traditional morality; this decline is apparent in the philosophy of Nietzsche. The Western worldview was shaken further by World War I and World War II, which made people think that civilization was bankrupt and the future bleak. Thus, the West fell into a deep spiritual crisis, into nihilism, and this crisis is reflected in Western art. As Solzhenitsyn said in 1993, “Our whole world is living through a century of spiritual illness, which could not but give rise to a similar ubiquitous illness in art.”2

The modern artist is confronted by a world that seems devoid of meaning, and also devoid of beauty and poetry. Cities have lost much of their former beauty, and the countryside has been taken over by sprawling suburbs. The aristocracy, the leisure class, has disintegrated, and now everyone must work, everyone must earn money, everyone must do what it was once thought dishonorable to do. The splendor of the monarchy is gone, the lofty idealism of religion is gone, the glory of military service is gone, the simple life of the farmer is gone.

Confronted with a world in which there seems to be neither meaning nor beauty, a world in which nothing is glorious, and in which there are no heroes, modern artists have chosen to concentrate on the process of artistic creation. Instead of representing the world and glorifying the world, as artists often did in the past, modern artists turn their backs on the world, as if to say, “the world is ugly and depressing; I don’t want to concern myself with the world; I want to concern myself with paint and with wood and with the process of artistic creation.” Because it’s concerned with process, modern art appeals only to a few initiates; it baffles and angers the layman.

Until recently, art always followed certain conventions and stayed within certain boundaries. The poet, the sculptor, the painter — all had to practice and study for years before they mastered the conventions of their art, and only after they had mastered these conventions could they call themselves artists and attempt something original. Modern art, on the other hand, has done away with all conventions and rules, and thus it has become possible for anyone to create something bizarre and then pretend that he’s an artist, an original mind, a genius. Solzhenitsyn spoke of the “empty pursuit of novel forms as an end in itself.”3 Modern artists, knowing that many famous artists were controversial in their time, assume that controversy is a sign of originality, and strive to create something controversial themselves. Modern artists often remind one of people who run down the street naked in order to attract attention, and create a stir.

Kafka called one artistic movement (Dada) “a crime” and he said, “The spine of the soul has been broken. Faith has collapsed.”4 The current state of the fine arts is one of the clearest signs that Western civilization is in a crisis. But this crisis is only temporary. The Philosophy of Today can heal “the spine of the soul,” and can have a positive effect on art. Art will be affected by the Zennish emphasis on tranquillity, the Zennish sympathy with nature, the Jungian respect for the unconscious, and the receptive attitude toward the occult.

4. Imitation of Genius  Two characteristics of genius are that it draws on the unconscious and that it creates something new, something original. Modern art makes a deliberate attempt to draw on the unconscious, and it makes a deliberate attempt to be original. The disorder, the chaos, the madness of modern art stems, in part, from the insistence on expressing the unconscious, and the insistence on being original. What the genius does naturally and spontaneously, the modern artist does deliberately and by choice. Modern art is an imitation of genius.

During the Middle Ages, no one aspired to be a genius, because everyone felt themselves to be part of a larger whole. Nowadays, however, everyone aspires to be a genius, because no one feels himself to be part of a larger whole. Modern society is like an army made up entirely of generals.

5. Swan Song  There are four kinds of cultural decline: psychological decline, spiritual decline, environmental decline, and biological decline. Psychological decline is an unconscious condition, a temporary weakening of the will to face life, a temporary decline of the life-instinct. Even the healthiest cultures experience psychological decline periodically. Psychological decline is the least serious kind of cultural decline.

While psychological decline is unconscious, spiritual decline is conscious. Spiritual decline is the erosion of the prevailing belief-system, the prevailing religion. If psychological decline is a synonym for decadence, spiritual decline is a synonym for nihilism. Mankind has passed through numerous periods of spiritual decline. Just as psychological decline usually leads to a fresh outbreak of energy and health, so too spiritual decline usually leads to growth and progress, to the construction of a new belief-system that improves on the old belief-system.

Environmental decline is a social environment that isn’t conducive to culture, a low level of popular culture, and a lack of healthy cultural traditions. Environmental decline is more serious than psychological decline or spiritual decline.

Biological decline is the extinction of genius, a society’s inability to produce geniuses. Just as the existence of mankind on earth is an accident, and is neither a necessary nor a permanent feature of the universe, so too mankind’s ability to produce genius is an accident, not an essential attribute of human nature. Biological decline is as serious as environmental decline.

Western culture now suffers from a combination of psychological, spiritual and environmental decline. Psychological decline never lasts forever, and the more extreme it is, the sooner it will turn into its opposite, a healthy, renaissance-type culture. Hence the West has little to fear from psychological decline. Nor does the West have much to fear from spiritual decline. The current spiritual decline of the West is gradually passing away as the West replaces traditional monotheism with new approaches to religion.

What is most threatening to the West is environmental decline: a low level of popular culture, an absence of healthy cultural traditions, a mode of life that consists of the feverish pursuit of wealth, and an educational system that is moving from bad to worse. But the West is not yet threatened by biological decline. During the last two centuries, the West has given ample evidence that it’s capable of producing geniuses.

In conclusion, the outlook for Western culture during the next century is bright. But the outlook for Western culture after the next century isn’t bright, since psychological decline will inevitably return, environmental decline will almost certainly continue, and biological decline may eventually set in. Will the next century be the swan song of Western culture?

6. The Revolt of the Masses  In an earlier chapter, we discussed the current cult of leadership.5 This is the kind of leadership that one finds in corporations and schools; one might refer to it as “leadership by position.” This kind of leadership should not be confused with spiritual or intellectual leadership. A spiritual leader is one whom people look up to, one who provides people with a model or ideal.

In the last two centuries, many philosophers have argued that modern society has an aversion for spiritual leadership. This aversion for spiritual leadership is sometimes referred to as “the revolt of the masses.” The classic expression of this idea is Ortega y Gasset’s book, The Revolt of the Masses.

Ortega argues that the majority should listen to the privileged few, but they no longer do, and this is a grave threat to civilization. Ortega argues that ancient civilization perished because the masses attained power: “The history of the Roman Empire is also the history of the uprising of the Empire of the Masses, who absorb and annul the directing minorities and put themselves in their place.”6

The masses no longer look up to the gifted few, and no longer look down on themselves. Ortega writes thus: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The masses have not only ceased listening to the elite, they are often hostile to the elite: “The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.”7

Freud reached a similar conclusion independently of Ortega. Freud witnessed the transition from aristocratic culture to popular culture, and he was horrified by popular culture. Like Ortega, Freud believed that the revolt of the masses could be found in its purest form in the U.S.:

The danger of a state of things which might be termed “the psychological poverty of groups” [is] most threatening where the bonds of a society are chiefly constituted by the identification of its members with one another, while individuals of the leader type do not acquire the importance that should fall to them in the formation of a group. The present cultural state of America would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization that is thus to be feared.8

This passage is from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, which was published in 1930, the same year as Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses. Freud’s argument did not influence Ortega. Who, then, influenced Ortega’s concept of “the revolt of the masses”?

The writer who influenced Ortega most was probably John Stuart Mill. Mill advocated individual liberty because it prevents the masses from suffocating the elite few, the few who think and act from their own mind, the few who are capable of innovations that will improve mankind as a whole. “These few are the salt of the earth,” Mill writes; “without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.”9 Government and society will stagnate in mediocrity, says Mill, unless the masses listen to the elite few:

No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.10

Mill venerated Alexis de Tocqueville, and Mill’s On Liberty contains echoes of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Democracy in America was published in 1835, 24 years before On Liberty. Democracy in America is one of the earliest expressions of the concept of the revolt of the masses. In the U.S., according to Tocqueville, a writer can’t criticize The People, the majority: “No writer, no matter how famous, can escape from this obligation to sprinkle incense over his fellow citizens. Hence the majority lives in a state of perpetual self-adoration.”11

Like Tocqueville and Mill, Nietzsche noticed “the revolt of the masses.” Nietzsche spent much of his career attacking the egalitarian trend of his time. Nietzsche preferred aristocracy to democracy. He loathed Christianity because it was anti-aristocratic, and he loathed the French Revolution because it, too, was anti-aristocratic.

Nietzsche praised “those noble natures who do not know how to live without reverence.” Nietzsche excoriated modern man, democratic man, because he had lost the feeling of reverence. When a young person reveres a hero-figure, he looks down on himself, since he thinks that he is far beneath the hero-figure. Mass man (to use Ortega’s term) no longer reveres, and no longer looks down on himself. Nietzsche wrote,

Alas! The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself. Behold! I shall show you the Last Man.... The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small.... No herdsman and one herd. Everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same: whoever thinks otherwise goes voluntarily into the madhouse.12

John Ruskin is the most Nietzschean writer in the English language; in Ruskin’s work, one often finds the same ideas, and the same tone, that one finds in Nietzsche’s work. Both Ruskin and Nietzsche lapsed into madness in the 1890s, and both died in 1900. Ruskin and Nietzsche developed independently; they never mention each other, and almost certainly never read each other. Here’s a passage from Ruskin that is strikingly similar to Nietzsche:

For us of the old race — few of us now left — children who reverence our fathers, and are ashamed of ourselves; comfortless enough in that shame, and yearning for one word or glance from the graves of old, yet knowing ourselves to be of the same blood, and recognizing in our hearts the same passions, with the ancient masters of humanity... the few of us now standing here and there, alone, in the midst of this yelping, carnivorous crowd, mad for money and lust... it is impossible for us, except in the labor of our hands, not to go mad.13

So there is Ruskin, ashamed and miserable, loathing the masses because they’re neither ashamed nor miserable, but rather shameless and self-assured. If there’s any difference between Ruskin and Nietzsche, it is that Ruskin is more strident in his scorn for the masses, and more pious in his reverence for “the ancient masters of humanity.”

No one analyzed the revolt of the masses in a more penetrating manner than Soren Kierkegaard, perhaps because no one had such a painful experience of it. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard makes frequent use of the French term ressentiment, meaning resentment or envy. Kierkegaard argues that the masses feel ressentiment toward anyone who is distinguished, who is above them, and they try to drag down anyone outstanding, they try to level.

No single individual [wrote Kierkegaard] will be able to arrest the abstract process of leveling.... that self-combustion of the human race.... All that is low and despicable comes to the fore, its very impudence giving the spurious effect of strength, while protected by its very baseness it avoids attracting the attention of ressentiment.14

As one reads these words, one thinks of the brash, coarse behavior that has become popular on American television. Though we may believe that the greatest danger to mankind is terrorism or nuclear weapons or pollution, Kierkegaard believed that the greatest danger to mankind is the revolt of the masses, the leveling process, which he calls “that self-combustion of the human race.”

The mass media fosters the revolt of the masses, while higher culture discourages it. In the 19th century, the primary form of mass media was newspapers. Mill noticed that newspapers were becoming more influential, while books were becoming less so:

The mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name... through the newspapers.15

All the thinkers whom we’ve discussed in this section were born in the 1800s. One of the few thinkers born in the 1900s who discussed the revolt of the masses is Joseph Campbell.

It’s characteristic of democracy [Campbell said] that majority rule is understood as being effective not only in politics but also in thinking. In thinking, of course, the majority is always wrong.... The majority’s function in relation to the spirit is to try to listen and to open up to someone who’s had an experience beyond that of food, shelter, progeny, and wealth.16

Campbell was born in 1904, and his outlook was shaped by 19th-century writers.

The idea of “the revolt of the masses” has a long history, beginning in the early 1800s with Tocqueville and Kierkegaard, continuing in the late 1800s with Mill, Nietzsche, and Ruskin, culminating with Freud and Ortega in the early 1900s, and surviving into the late 1900s with Campbell. Nowadays, few writers discuss “the revolt of the masses,” perhaps because it’s so much a part of modern life that people are no longer aware of it (we’re more aware of transitions than of steady states). No one alive today has seen an aristocratic culture with their own eyes, hence no one notices “the revolt of the masses.”

7. Other-directed  The idea of “inner-directed, other-directed,” which was first set forth by the sociologist David Riesman in 1950, resembles the idea of the “revolt of the masses,” and makes our picture of modern society more complete. Riesman argues that, in our time, people are “other-directed,” that is, they take their cues from the people around them. In an earlier time, people often had an ideal, a hero-image in their own mind, and they would take their cues from this ideal; they were “inner-directed.” The inner-directed person has an “internalized set of goals,” goals that are often instilled by books. The inner-directed person often keeps a diary in which he records whether his behavior lives up to his ideals.

The other-directed person is molded by the peer group, and is “sensitized to the expectations and preferences of others.”17 An other-directed person is chiefly concerned with people — not with God, not with lofty ideals, not with great men from previous centuries. Education, which once consisted of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, is now concerned with how the child gets along with other children, and how the child listens to social cues. As education has changed, so too work has changed; the economy is now a “personality market.” While the inner-directed person was concerned with self-improvement and character-building, the other-directed person is concerned with relating to others. As Riesman put it,

Instead of referring himself to the great men of the past and matching himself against his stars, the other-directed person moves in the midst of a veritable Milky Way of almost but not quite indistinguishable contemporaries.... To shine alone seems hopeless, and also dangerous.18

The phrase “almost but not quite indistinguishable contemporaries” reminds one of Nietzsche’s comment, “everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same.”

Although the trend toward other-direction is still strong, some contrary trends have emerged since Riesman first published his theory. There is a trend toward introspection and stress-reduction; meditation and yoga are popular. An aristocratic culture may be a thing of the past, and “the revolt of the masses” may be here to stay. But the “inner-directed” personality may not be a thing of the past. Though modern man doesn’t match himself against heroes and Great Men, he may listen to what his own soul and body are telling him.

back to home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. See The Lichtenberg Reader, “1775” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), and Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, 244 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1959, trans. M. Faber with S. Lehmann). back
2. “The Relentless Cult of Novelty and How It Wrecked the Century,” New York Times Book Review, 2/7/93 back
3. ibid back
4. Conversations With Kafka, by Gustav Janouch back
5. see ch. 6, #29 back
6. ibid, ch. 2 back
7. ibid, ch. 1 back
8. Civilization and Its Discontents, ch. 5 back
9. On Liberty, ch. 3 back
10. ibid back
11. Democracy in America, vol. I, part ii, 7 back
12. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” 5 back
13. see John D. Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius, ch. 10 back
14. Kierkegaard, The Present Age back
15. On Liberty, ch. 3 back
16. The Power of Myth, ch. 4 back
17. David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, I, 1 back
18. ibid, ch. 6, 2. Just as Kierkegaard noticed “the revolt of the masses,” so too he noticed the trend toward “other-direction”: “People’s attention is no longer turned inwards,” Kierkegaard wrote, “they are no longer satisfied with their own inner religious lives, but turn to others and to things outside themselves.”(The Present Age) back